Oh, That Seventies Feeling

Historians are finally starting to show that there was a lot more to the “Me Decade” than we might have thought.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Those were the days: Economic upheavals wiped out long-established institutions and jolted self-satisfied elites. Terrorists declared war on the West in the name of eccentric utopias. New technologies collapsed geographical distance, bringing far-flung regions closer together and undermining the power of the traditional nation-state.

I could be talking, of course, about the early twenty-first century. But as a growing number of historians and commentators are realizing, all of the above applies equally well to the 1970s, a critical decade that deserves to be remembered for more than disco and bellbottoms. For those who lived through them — at least in the United States — the 1970s may have felt mostly like the moment when history ground to a halt: A dullsville interregnum between the highs of the 1960s and the Cold War climacteric of the 1980s. Author Tom Wolfe famously dubbed it the "Me Decade," a period of egotistical navel-gazing and frivolous hedonism. For Americans, it was the era of Watergate, long lines at gas stations, the last years of the inglorious Vietnam adventure, and President Ford. In short, not much worth celebrating.

So why, then, are we suddenly witnessing a flurry of books that aim to refocus our attention on this misbegotten decade? The answer is twofold: First, the Seventies are a lot more interesting than conventional opinion would have it; and, second, the stresses that defined that moment in history turn out to be eerily relevant to our own.

Above all else, the 1970s marked the moment when world leaders and ordinary citizens alike woke up with a jolt to their common status as inhabitants of an interconnected world — and understood, in the process, that this didn’t necessarily make the planet a more predictable place. "This is the decade when things start to unravel," says Harvard historian Charles Maier, one of the editors of the new book The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective. In his essay in the book, historian Daniel Sargent offers a citation from 1975: "Old international patterns are crumbling … The world has become interdependent in economics, in communications, and in human aspirations." The writer was Henry Kissinger.

Two other works focus on the American Seventies as a moment of wrenching economic transition, one with a more than passing resemblance to our own. Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s, by Judith Stein, mourns the moment when, she contends, U.S. manufacturing set off on its long march to points overseas. Jefferson R. Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (due this August) offers its own swan song to America’s blue collars. (According to the publisher’s note, the book charts "the tortuous path from Nixon to Reagan — think Archie Bunker, Dog Day Afternoon, and Merle Haggard …") Needless to say, these dark diagnoses resonate at a moment when the near-collapse of the U.S. financial sector makes some onlookers long for the certainties of a time when real men made stuff. (Trivia question: When was the first time Chrysler got a U.S. government bailout? That would be 1979, under CEO Lee Iacocca.)

It’s much easier to navigate the cultural and economic upheavals of the 1970s, however, when you take a planet-sized view. That’s the approach chosen by the editors of the aforementioned The Shock of the Global, a grab-bag of lively academic essays that covers everything from the proliferation of global non-government organizations to the worldwide women’s rights movement to smallpox eradication. In his introduction, the ubiquitous Harvard financial historian Niall Ferguson points out that the 1970s gave us bar codes, the microprocessor, email, the personal computer, the videocassette recorder, the pocket calculator, ultrasound, and the MRI — not to mention Microsoft and Apple.

The book’s range of topics seems a bit scattershot at first, but a theme emerges soon enough: The rise of global "interdependence," as the jargon of the period had it. (The word "globalization," as The Shock of the Global notes, first appeared in 1974, in a New York Times op-ed by economist Ronald Miller.) For the industrialized West, the wake-up call was the 1973-74 oil crisis, when a handful of recalcitrant Third World Arabs gleefully plunged the global economy into a tailspin. Other economic transformations, however, had more long-term effects. For example, as Sargent notes, the size of the international banking market (as a percentage of global GDP) "grew from just 1.2 percent of global output in 1964 to 16.2 percent in 1980." Louis Hyman points out, in his essay on global financial markets, that the first mortgage-backed securities were sold to global investors in 1970.

And it wasn’t just the realm of finance that vastly expanded its reach; so, too, did multinational corporations and aspiring export champions in the developing world. It was in the 1970s that the East Asian "tigers" began their steep ascent to the top ranks of the global economy. Global trade, supported by the containerization of shipping and the expansion of satellite communications, exploded. By the end of the decade, as Odd Arne Westad explains in his excellent contribution, Deng Xiaoping’s China was making the first fateful steps in its own "market revolution."

The decade also marked a decisive shift from the Keynesian economic philosophy that had held sway since the end of World War II to the tumultuous brand of classical liberal economics embodied by Friedrich von Hayek (a 1974 Nobel Laureate) and Milton Friedman (who won the Nobel in 1976). Sweden’s Social Democrats lost power for the first time since the end of World War II in a 1976 poll — a harbinger, perhaps, of Margaret Thatcher’s general election victory in Britain three years later, which ushered in the conservative backlash of the 1980s. We are still living with the consequences.

The Shock of the Global tilts unapologetically toward political economy — the field in which many of the book’s authors hold credentials. It’s a filter that sometimes falls short when it comes to capturing the period’s full complexity — as in the case of the rise of political Islam, which would culminate, at the end of the decade, in Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the beginnings of the global jihad unleashed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But this book still manages to bring some of the period’s most important trends into sharp relief. Charles Maier, the Harvard history professor, says that the 1970s marked a crucial moment when global elites realized that "the policy solutions for economic dilemmas [were] no longer working. Suddenly there’s a group of problems arriving for which there isn’t a ready repertory of answers." He suspects that it’s precisely that sense of "disequilibrium" that will resonate with present-day readers — all of us who have just emerged from the great financial cataclysm of 2008. The lesson of the 1970s, says Maier with a laugh, is simple: "Stability is never assured. It always undermines itself … You’re never out of the woods." As if we needed reminding.

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